When the pandemic hit last March, upending lives across the country, neighbors, community organizations and churches stepped in to fill critical needs — including, in some cases, a need for food. 

At Charlotte Community Services Association, a nonprofit extension of First Baptist Church-West, the focus was on ensuring that aging adults in the city’s West End community — a designated food desert by Mecklenburg County — didn’t go hungry. 

For two months, the organization served roughly 200 meals, four days a week, with “little resources” said Patsy Burkins, executive director of CSA. But by July, funds to run the program were almost depleted. 

As CSA prepared to shut down its feeding program, a call came from a Mecklenburg County official offering financial support. Now a year later, the program has served an estimated 41,000 grab-and-go meals.

“It was God,” Burkins said of the last-minute intervention.

“When stuff like that happens, that’s when you know you’re on the right track and you’re doing what you’re supposed to.”

Kajal Patel, program manager for the county’s Senior Citizens Nutrition Program, said that when the county closed its 18 nutrition sites due to the pandemic, the agency turned to the community.

“We (county) just didn’t have enough manpower to fill the need on a larger scale,” Patel said.

Patel said the county initiated a partnership with CSA — one of several partnerships formed with community organizations — because the church is located in a high-priority area and was already demonstrating that it could make a difference by “feeding hundreds of seniors daily.” 

Why it matters

Photo: Sarafina Wright

Nearly 15% of Mecklenburg County’s households are considered food insecure, which means they have reduced access to fresh meats and vegetables. 

The bulk of those food-insecure individuals live in six zip codes — 28205, 28206, 28208, 28212, 28216 and 28217 — identified by the health department as priority areas. 

For senior in these areas, many living on low or fixed incomes, the pandemic only exacerbated food insecurity, said Rev. Ricky A. Woods, senior minister of First Baptist Church-West and CSA board chair. 

Prior to the pandemic, he said, many of the seniors CSA serves daily would normally get meals and socialization at one of the county’s nutrition sites. But when the sites closed, those individuals no longer had convenient access to free meals, which created an opening for CSA said Woods.

“A program like this was a lifeline for many of them,” he said.

A look inside

CSA workers prepare grab-and-go meals for seniors on Thursday, July 8. Photo: Sarafina Wright

The days begin early for the staff at CSA, which serves almost a thousand meals a week.

By 10 a.m., a line of cars begin to form.

“As you can see, this is a full-scale operation,” Burkins said one day as she also greeted a county food inspector who showed up for a surprise visit. 

Burkins oversees a food staff of about 12 people, some who are volunteers; others work as cooks and food handlers. 

Everyday Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the workers feed about 220 seniors daily with meals that may include spaghetti, tuna salad, fruit salad, desserts or the fan-favorite chicken salad. 

Macaroni and cheese, smoked turkey, black-eyed peas, yellow rice, collard greens and candied yams also make appearances on the menu.

Burkins said that what sets CSA apart from other food programs in the county is its healthy cuisine that “seniors want to eat.”

“It’s truly from their culture,” said. “Not being poured from a can or frozen food. We taste the food and make sure it’s good. You don’t generally expect that from a mass program that’s serving the community.”

What also makes this program unique is the “neighbors-helping-neighbors” component, she said, noting that some seniors take meals to others who can’t leave home for various reasons. Some who are fed by the program are upwards of 90 and 100 years old, Burkins said.

One of the regulars, Diane Wyche, picks up seven meals daily, including one for herself. 

She delivers the food to her neighbors in the West End who don’t have transportation or are dealing with health ailments.

“They enjoy the meals, and they look forward to it every day,” said Wyche. “I think it’s a great program for any side of Charlotte and any senior, but I like it being in my neighborhood, and my neighbors are quite happy it’s here too.”

Future uncertain

Rev. Ricky A Woods, senior minister, First Baptist Church-West. Photo: Sarafina Wright

With the CSA feeding program funded through December, it’s unclear whether the county will renew funding. 

Woods said CSA’s current grab-and-go service “is the kind of program that needs to continue,” since it’s unknown how comfortable seniors will feel about going back to mass gatherings at nutritional sites post-covid. 

In fact, he said, such programs should be layered to include “health education and (other) information that impacts seniors.”

Patel said that while CSA’s feeding program has made a positive impact, the county must examine several factors to determine future funding. 

Post-covid, the county plans to reopen all of its nutritional sites, including those at West Charlotte Recreation Center and the McCrorey YMCA, both within a two-mile radius of First Baptist Church-West. 

Patel said the county wants to avoid duplication of services. Also, she said, the county is analyzing what the need might be for grab-and-go meals in a post-pandemic environment.

“We definitely feel like we could use the support from community agencies to leverage the services we provide, but we also have to recognize the fact that drive-thru meals are not the complete solution,” she said.

Patel said the more than 1,600 seniors who are registered at nutritional sites across the county also find value in the fellowship and socialization they with their meals. 

The county-run sites also provide various amenities, including computer labs, day trips, and diabetes self-management classes, Patel said. 

Patel says the issue is less about funding and more about what makes sense for the community and its partners. 

The county alone cannot put solutions in place,” she said. “We definitely need the support of the community and organizations. If it is justified, I think the county will do its best to fund that gap in service.

“What we don’t want to do,” she said, “is drop it without a plan in place.”

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Sarafina covers Historic West End under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. She earned a journalism degree from Howard University. Email news tips to sarafinawright@qcitymetro.com...

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